Film: Page One: Inside the New York Times (Magnolia Films 2011)
Director: Andrew Rossi
Screenwriters: Kate Novack, Andrew Rossi
?We must adjust to changing times and still hold to unchanging principles.?
When Dinosaurs Roamed the Earth and Were Suddenly Forced to Compete with Bloggers for Food
Print media is expensive to put together. Newspapers have traditionally paid for themselves with advertising, allowing them to charge their readers less than the cost of production. But advertising revenue depends on circulation, and now that most people are getting their news free on the Internet, advertising funds have shifted in that direction.
Another disadvantage to print media is that despite touting itself as an impregnable bastion of legitimacy in a swirling online sea of amateur citizen journalism, it has at times most certainly messed up. Some publications have even come to be seen as chronically messed up, to the point where the claim to legitimacy doesn’t always hold water.
Even the hallowed New York Times has had its reputation plummet. The most notable fiasco was the Judith Miller articles from the ?90s, written in support of the decision to head into the Iraq War. The intelligence received was faulty, and while the paper took the hit (as did the career of Ms. Miller), the event called the merit of all print media into question.
In this decade, social media has proven to be instrumental in spreading news about what’s going on in the heat of revolt around the world, with citizen journalists able to quickly circulate photos and videos taken in the fray. While there are no ethical constraints or professional standards, the influence of the footage is there nonetheless (Facebook’s role in the Arab Spring is just one example). Twitter can give you a headline within seconds of an event. It’s now possible find out just about anything from a blogger. Anyone with a cell phone can be a journalist, and anyone with Internet access can be a news distributor.
One colourful character in the film, a news reporter for the Times and also an advocate for the paper in the face of mounting criticism, is David Carr?a former drug addict and single dad on welfare, a man who somehow managed to make it to the top of the Times. Carr, who speaks with the strained intensity of someone with a speech impediment or neurological challenge, addresses the difficulty of having to compete with potentially every ordinary citizen in the production and sale of news. He says that the medium is no longer, as McLuhan stated, the message; rather, the message is now the medium.
So what makes us still want to go out and buy a paper or to pay for an online subscription, when so much news is freely available online? Quite frankly, not much. There are those who will continue to support newspapers, but more from a sense of loyalty than from necessity or a desire to find out what’s going on the world.
Yet despite Ariana Huffington’s suggestion that print media is now in danger of becoming extinct, citizen journalists still can’t interview heads of state, sit in on certain government proceedings, or talk to film idols on the red carpet. To do that you need a newspaper or communications network behind you. There are those politicians and entertainers who believe that any press is good press, but without a media bastion ID card a journalist will be limited in what she can be permitted to investigate and report on.
Still, though, the mainstream media no longer controls what we know about the world. From an economic perspective this state of affairs echoes what’s happening across the industrialized world: the old business models can longer compete with the many small players now springing up thanks to the ubiquitous availability of computer technology.
Another important cultural advantage of print media is that it strives to maintain high standards of grammar and style. This is something amateurs rarely seem willing to master in the anything-goes world of the web, and because of this the dissemination of information becomes a cloudy affair, like listening to a radio with reception so bad you miss every third word. Clarity of writing is a significant vehicle of truth, and without it society falls prey to predators of deceit who use language as a tool of oppression instead of an avenue of freedom.
If not for these remaining vestiges of respectability Julian Assange might not have chosen to blow his whistle in the direction of The New York Times, wisely granting his WikiLeaks the legit news status they deserved. And if The New York Times had not chosen to embrace and even hire citizen journalists to gather news quickly, it might not still be standing today.
The print world’s current woes might not be a bad thing. Now print media has to be good, if only to justify its continued existence, and only the fittest will survive. The tricky part will be making it pay. Only a few journals will endure, and they will not necessarily be the giants; they may simply be those who’ve found ways to stick it out in the brave new world.
For its part The New York Times is developing new ways of taking advantage of citizen journalism to glean information, while retaining the standards of investigation and quality writing found in the best print journalism.
Page One fulfills six of the Mindful Bard’s criteria for films well worth seeing: 1) it poses and admirably responds to questions that have a direct bearing on my view of existence; 2) it stimulates my mind; 3) it harmoniously unites art with social action, saving me from both seclusion in an ivory tower and slavery to someone else’s political agenda; 4) it makes me want to be a better artist; 5) it renews my enthusiasm for positive social action; and 6) it makes me appreciate that life is a complex and rare phenomenon, making living a unique opportunity.